By this time, don’t we know just about everything there is to know about Alfred Hitchcock? Few, if any, other filmmakers have had their lives and careers examined, explored and analyzed as much as has the vaunted master of suspense. So unless incontrovertible evidence were to be suddenly found that the director secretly fathered a dozen illegitimate children by as many women and personally supplied Churchill with an untraceable poison powder to drop into Stalin’s tea in Yalta, only to see the prime minister chicken out, it’s quite unlikely that much new will ever be added to his life story that we don’t already know.
But leave it to the staggeringly prolific North Irish documentary filmmaker Mark Cousins to forge a new way to approach the subject with My Name Is Alfred Hitchcock; he engaged a skilled British impressionist and comic, Alistair McGowan, to give new voice to the late master of suspense by supplying him with witty and informative commentary that ruminates respectfully, and quite amusingly, over keenly chosen moments from the director’s half-century career (McGowan is said to be devastatingly good at imitating Prince Charles and former prime minister Tony Blair). If this seems vaguely presumptuous on paper, it never seems so in practice, as the remarks are enunciated with, let’s say, 95 percent accent authenticity and a panache that holds its own with that of the subject.
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The two-hour piece, which is divided into six chapters, cheekily announces that it was “written and voiced by Alfred Hitchcock.” His initial commentary commences, disarmingly, from the grave as we behold a huge statue of his head in the gardens of a London housing project. “They made this monument to me after I died,” “Hitch” proclaims, adding that, “I look like the Buddha of the movies.”
Passing quickly over his modest Catholic childhood in East London, “Hitch” announces that, “I escaped. I made my life in other places,” confidentially adding that, “I knew that movies were a country you could go to. I wanted to escape to a parallel world,” something he was able to do with his teeny and supremely smart wife Alma, herself a skillful writer who started working in film production at 16, well before her future husband, and whose considerable contributions to her husband’s work receive only modest notice here.
Accompanied by a vast array of shrewdly selected clips, Cousins loads his probe into the director’s life with insights and comments that often involve his relationship with the public; always desirous to enter people’s “dream state,” “Hitch” insists that “I love you, my audiences. I love playing with you.” His overriding preoccupation, he admits, is with desire, and Hitch himself could not have put it better than how Cousins sums up Hitchcock’s, and Hollywood’s, attitude toward its audience: “They wanted to keep you in a state of chaste arousal.”
Even if you’ve seen all the clips and heard many of the stories before, the new film is refreshing, even bracing, due to Cousins’ deep knowledge of his subject and the clever way he devised to allow the audience to bask anew in deep-dish Hitchcockiana. Cousins’ narration has the director confide that he wanted to diverge from “the usual way of doing things,” promising, in turn, to provide the viewer with “a holiday from your life. Fantasy matters, doesn’t it?”
In real life, Hitchcock “escaped” from class-conscious Britain to a place where his accent and way of speaking sounded elegantly precise, even distinguished. He quickly became rich and, subsequently, a celebrity and even, in current parlance, a “brand,” arguably more notably than did any other filmmaker of his era.
Many of the films are discussed at some considerable length, for their fundamental strength as well as for their quirks. “I realized movies are a trickster medium,” “Hitch” remarks at one point. “I am a trickster, you see. I wanted to straddle commerce and art, Murnau and D.W. Griffith.” In the final scene of his career, in Family Plot, Hitchcock had Barbara Harris wink at the camera—“a trickster’s wink.”
One senses something resembling a meeting of the minds between Hitchcock and Cousins, stemming, at least in part, from both men’s obsessiveness, deep understanding of the medium and a mutual delight they take in quirks and pranks. It’s wonderful how, when “Hitch” speaks, Cousins chose not to eliminate the narrator’s rough inhaling sounds; the decision actually serves to usefully point up Hitchcock’s lessening strength and health in the late-going.
Now, 123 years after his birth, we’re still talking about Hitchcock and promulgating new ideas regarding his work; is there any other director of his era who is still referenced anywhere near as much as he is? My Name Is Alfred Hitchcock is a frisky, free-wheeling, deeply informed salute from one very clever British chap to another who was also rather more than that, one who made his first film 97 years ago and whose work is still widely seen and known. Not bad for the son of a modest grocer from East London.
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